REVIEWED: The Swamp Fox


The Swamp Fox by John Oller (Historical Biography, 2016).

This is a refreshingly honest and well-written account of a genuine American hero. It’s probably a (moderate) exaggeration to claim that Francis Marion “saved the American Revolution.” But the fact that he was a important and outstanding figure in the War of Independence is beyond debate. A smart, energetic and determined yet (by the standards of his day) humane man, his leadership of a tiny militia force and the guerrilla-style tactics he most often employed tied up thousands of British and Loyalist forces at a key time in the struggle. He disrupted and frustrated the opposition’s plans, again and again. It’s perfectly reasonable that the people of South Carolina consider him their foremost native hero of the war.

His true story has plenty of drama and interest in its own right, without any need to resort to the sometimes silly myth-making of some past writers, beginning with the infamous “Parson” Weems, to inflate Marion’s image into some sort of Flawless Superhero for allegedly patriotic purposes. (Weems, one is reminded, is the guy who invented such stirring nonsense as the youthful George Washington’s cherry tree incident).

Oller has consulted and considered all manner of original and secondary sources (yes, including even Weems and the firsthand account from the general’s subordinate and longtime friend Peter Horry that Weems studied then expanded shamelessly on in a worshipful 1809 bio of Marion that Horry denounced as fiction). Sifting through a massive amount of material, Oller arrives at a fine portrait of quiet, sternly honorable man whose achievements belie his short stature, his lack of apparent charisma and a pronounced limp he’d had since childhood.

The author clearly admires his subject, but doesn’t gloss over the few mistakes Marion made in his career. For instance, his thin skin regarding criticism is fairly considered and placed in the proper context of his embattled, often isolated situation.

Likewise, Oller neither ignores nor minimizes the troubles and achievements of other key figures in the fateful southern campaign that wore out the British resolve. Context again and again wins out in portraits of such important figures as Thomas Sumter, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, the various British and Loyalist leaders they fought, Governor-in-Exile Rutledge and, of course, Marion’s superior Nathanael Greene.

Nor is this exclusively a study of the man at war. His heritage (a descendant of French Huguenot refugees), as well as his pre- and post-war life were handled in effective manner. Again, context. This is the story of an actual person, with personal and familial challenges to face, even as he risks his life (and often feels slighted by the country he’s doing it for).

Incidentally, Oller briefly goes into the mystery of how that evocative nickname came about. And he notes (as is so often overlooked) that at first it was meant as anything but complementary.

In short: This is a very good book–solid history told in an exciting but not over-the-top or fawning manner. It tells of one of the most violent phases of the Revolution, which was (as Oller reminds us) a most uncivil Civil War that tore friendships and families apart and caused great suffering. Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion did what he had to, while struggling to hold onto his humanity and what he saw as his personal honor. In the process, he played a big part in helping create modern South Carolina and the new nation it became part of.



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